Batgirl #49 dives headfirst into having the Gordons investigate the murder of a Batgirl as well as continues to explore their current, highly dysfunctional, relationships.
I’m going to come right out and say that I did not enjoy this issue. The more I’ve looked at it to write this review, the more frustrated I’ve become with it. My first draft was more like a list of complaints that filled a whole page. I have done my best to cut that down, but if I’m being honest there’s very little here I liked.
The majority of this issue features a series of scenes that trade out between the killer, Babs, Jim and Gordon, and James Jr as they investigate the growing number of Batgirl murders. It also focuses in on Jim and James Jr.’s attempts to talk to Babs because they’re worried about her. And ultimately shows us who the killer is, and attempts to explain their motives.
On a first read this isn’t too bad until you realize it’s full of contradictions and moments that don’t quite make sense. Like, for some reason, Jim has access to the police databases even though it’s made clear he’s not an officer anymore. Then later, Jim declares all the victims are natural redheads despite the first page specifically having the killer say he’s dyed the hair of one of the girls. Bard, in his brief scene, is both back to using a cane and stating he hates Batgirl, which goes against the last couple arcs where he was working with her and saying they were at least on okay terms. The narrative is littered with moments like this, not only distracting from what’s going on, but creating confusion when you consider they’re supposed to be investigating murders.
Eventually Jim asks Barbra to move back in with him, worried she’s the next target. I wasn’t happy last issue with how strained Castellucci chose to write their relationship and I’m even less pleased with it here. Barbara rebuffs his legitimate worry by telling him she can keep herself safer than he can because of what the Batman Who Laughs did to him. I still don’t understand why she’s so angry with him for something he had no control over. Even with some rocky moments, they have a fairly good relationship in general so this wild change just doesn’t sit with me. It feels forced to create more tension between the family, tension that could easily be done other ways, especially considering James Jr. is an active part of this story.
That said, the scenes where Jim talks to Barbara are illustrated gorgeously. They’re having their discussion in the rain, and this is one of those moments you can really feel the downpour going on around them. In fact, Rodriguez does a great job showing the storm through the entirety of the issue in the way lights blur in the background, rain pelting off coats and umbrellas, it dripping down faces, and giving us a fantastic shot of lighting towards the end.
There’s one panel in particular between Jim and Babs that I really love, where Rodriguez forgoes a complicated background to show just the two of them talking, with the rain splashing in puddles under their feet. The only color here is on the Gordons and Babs thought bubble and it makes the panel really striking.
Speaking of color, Bellaire’s colors are phenomenal through the book. Again, I’m going to lean into the rain scenes because they’re really beautiful. Bellaire makes these work so well by balancing the colors of the rain drenched city with the brighter ones cloaking the characters. Even when the characters are in a duller color pallet, the background colors are just different enough to not only offset the two things, but make characters pop as well, and in scenes filled with raindrops this really helps keep the images clear.
Barbara’s detective skills in this issue leave much to be desired. She’s supposedly investigating but Jim has to tell her about the other murders, even though she’d have access to those files. Then, when we see her investigating, it’s not done well. She goes back to the crime scenes, and declares that only one woman was killed in the Batgirl suit, despite the story showing two scenes where girls were in the suit before they died. Then, even though she spent quite a bit of time looking at the locations of the killings on a map it’s James Jr. who has to point out the pattern can be traced to look like most of a bat symbol.
Furthermore, when following the trail of evidence she’s led to James Jr.’s apartment she simply believes him when he says he’s not the killer. Her reasoning is that because he did all the same things she and her dad did he must not have done it. If I had a psychotic brother with a history of murder I would at least be suspicious of him especially if the evidence led me to his apartment. But Barbara isn’t and promptly leaves to go to the place she believes will be the final location the killer will drop off a body at.
When Babs arrives at the lighthouse she discovers the identity of the killer, who it turns out has a split personality.
The killer is none other than James Jr. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows the character. Still I’m disappointed that Castellucci chose such a predictable route. My biggest problem with this is the fact that James Jr. has developed a split personality. Apparently all his hatred for Babs and Batgirl was so suppressed it turned into a second personality bent on revenge against Batgirl. This isn’t really stated clearly, and makes little sense in regards to his past characterization. The story wants us to assume that his medication is working, and that instead of trying to deal with his hatred he repressed it and caused the split to occur. No matter what, I wish there was more time given to him, so we could be convinced part of him cared about Barbara, and also to see him being slighted, or moments where he’s legitimately pushed away by Jim in favor of paying attention to Batgirl to help prove what he tells Babs. Because this arc is two issues long, we don’t get any of that. He hasn’t really had enough time on the page to show that kind of complex internal struggle.
Then to prevent any real resolution or give any more answers, James Jr. suddenly decides to throw himself off the lighthouse. Apparently he thinks this will fix the problems in the Gordon family. It makes absolutely no sense, especially when we barely know what’s going on with him in the first place.
The killer having a split personality feels like an attempt to keep readers off their scent, but honestly it causes more problems than anything. I get that this is Castellucci trying to put a ‘spin’ on a murderer simply being evil, but it is in no way the trope reversal she seems to think it is. In fact, it takes the narrative and drops it directly into the trope of making the mentally ill killers, and I can’t get behind that. Especially when it happens so suddenly. We have little interaction with this character in Castellucci’s run before this, and we have to infer just how he developed the split personality. It –like a number of Castellucci’s decisions this run– is in poor taste. Especially right now when people are focused on mental health issues, trying to help others see that they can get better, and in creating narratives that dispel the false idea that the mentally ill are dangerous. This decision, ultimately feels like the opposite of all that.
These last couple pages should be emotional, but unfortunately this story feels far too rushed to really stick that landing. In fact, this whole resolution is packed into three pages. We get one single page to understand who the killer is, and why they did all of this. That’s not nearly enough time to really explore their reasons, or Barbara’s reaction, or much of anything. This is the kind of story that needs to take time to develop and attempting to tell it in a few issues simply does not create the connections in readers required for us to feel anything but surprised. I honestly have no idea what’s in store for the next and final issue, but I highly doubt it’s going to be a satisfying conclusion to this run.
- Pick it up if you want to finish reading the whole run?
- But even then, just wait for the book to be relaunched
While the idea of a serial killer dressing victims up like vigilantes is not a new one, I had hoped that at the very least this would be an enjoyable mystery. Unfortunately Batgirl is full of contradictions and ends up falling into a number of badly chosen tropes. It’s character motivations, don’t feel fully explained, and any emotional connection it’s trying to develop is not given the time it needs. Everything feels rushed and over too soon. As it stands, I have little desire to return to Batgirl for it’s finale.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.